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Bad movies
Photograph: Time Out

The ‘schlock and awe’ world of brilliantly bad movies

Film lovers the world over are flocking to watch shaky acting, silly plots and laughable effects. Sean McGeady investigates why

Written by
Sean McGeady

Beneath the boring blockbusters and passé multiplex programming, there lie the sewers of independent film exhibition, a kind of nether realm where Thunderstorm: The Return of Thor is more popular than Thor: Love and Thunder. 

Yes, bad movies are big business too. Whether presenting on pub projectors or 50-foot screens, the underworld is awash with independent exhibitors for whom low-budget genre fare is infinitely more interesting than the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

‘Bad’, ‘cult’, ‘trash’, whatever you call it, it’s all out there: slapdash 1950s sci-fi, trashy 1960s and 1970s exploitation, 1980s cop schlock, 1990s direct-to-video martial arts movies. You’ve just got to know where to find it. Welcome to the gutters of cinema, where good taste goes to die. 

‘You’re at the bottom end of the cinephile gene pool when you like these kinds of movies,’ says Richard Clark, who operates as Token Homo and hosts Bar Trash at London’s Genesis Cinema. Here, fans converge to devour such demented delights as 1955’s Creature with the Atom Brain and 1973’s wickedly weird Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood. Tickets cost £1, there are competitions and prizes, and themed cocktails during the intermissions.

Sure, sometimes they’re one star movies – but they’re always five star experiences

Each Bar Trash screening is a celebration of an extinct kind of cinema. Many of these movies were put together by inexperienced, underfunded idealists whose, let’s say, ‘unique’ approach to problem-solving resulted in weird, otherworldly pictures.

‘These people had a story to tell but no resources, no filmmaking experience, and no time to come up with anything other than the solutions they came up with,’ Clark says. ‘That creativity bleeds out through their films. You’ve got to dive into it.’ 

It’s the same story across the pond in Portland, Oregon, only with more pony tails and karate. Here, what began with a few friends chewing through VHS tapes of Chuck Norris movies has become one of the longest-running signature series at the historic Hollywood Theater. At B-Movie Bingo, rowdy crowds eat up low-calorie genre films while looking for daft action tropes. Pen ready? Mark your card if and when someone: climbs; sneaks; gets blown away by an explosion or kicked in the balls; says: ‘We had a deal’; uses a flamethrower; defuses a bomb with one second remaining; fights the hero mano a mano… you get the idea. 

When the feature presentations are the likes of 1985’s Gymkata, 1988’s Night of the Kickfighters, and 1991’s timelessly tosh Samurai Cop – usually on VHS and sometimes with the filmmakers in attendance – filling out your card comes easy. Fun comes even easier. 

‘It was already a homegrown, communal, interactive viewing experience,’ says host and co-founder Robbie Augspurger. ‘We were just able to scale it up. We went from having 20 people coming to our house to showing it to 240 people.’

As the head of programming at London’s Prince Charles Cinema, Paul Vickery understands the value of ‘bad’ movies, both culturally and monetarily. The picturehouse has screened curios by the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Neil Breen and Andy Sidaris, and its Badass B-Movie season presents a breadth of ‘bad’ in many thrilling flavours. Recently, the crowd sat rapt for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in screen one, while those watching Hard Ticket to Hawaii upstairs cackled as a dude crashed through a wall on a motorbike and fired a rocket launcher at a snake emerging from the loo. 

B-Movie Bingo
Photograph: Hollywood TheaterB-Movie Bingo is a staple at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre

‘We played a Béla Tarr movie recently and it sold out,’ Vickery says. ‘That’s 300 people in a room who, with regards to popular culture, have pretty out-there film taste. So does someone who comes to see Tammy and the T-Rex: Gore Cut. They all play on the same screen, in the same room – we give them the same level of respect.’

We can’t be too precious about what these films are meant to be

Not everyone does. Sam Katzman was a prolific producer who made millions off quickie flicks from the 1930s to the 1970s. He called them ‘moron pictures’. Like many bad-film fans, Clark wears that label with pride.

‘Bar Trash is simply that,’ he says. ‘It’s about the people who gather to watch these films and what other people might think of us.’ The host likens the film season to a 1920s neighbourhood nickelodeon. ‘They were more social spaces. The film wasn’t the most important thing there – the company was. That’s why I have intermissions. We can’t be too precious about what these films are meant to be. The experience should be fun.’

In Portland, Augspurger reckons the movies themselves have little to do with it. ‘I don’t think people are paying to see the movies,’ he says. ‘They’re paying for the interactive experience. If we just showed Hologram Man or Magic Cop, we might get 30 or 40 people. But we’ve been seeing the same people every month for ten years – that’s more than I see of my family!’

There are tensions at the heart of the bad-movie scene, though. The most significant, perhaps, is the crucial difference between laughing at films and laughing with films. 

‘I’m not a fan of sitting back and cackling [at a film],’ says Clark. ‘I don’t think that’s the way to enjoy anything – that’s about putting you before whatever’s in front of you. The thing I love is allowing yourself to go with it.’

Bar Trash
Photograph: Bar Trash

Portland’s B-Movie Bingo is no roast either. ‘We’re not trying to make fun of the movies,’ Augspurger says. ‘It’s hard to make a movie. Even getting a bad movie made is a minor miracle. We call what’s on the cards and we try to make that the comedic intersection.’

Of course, there’s an elephant in The Room here. Tommy Wiseau’s chef-d’oeuvre has transcended bad cinema and become its own industry. ‘You have to pull The Room out of [the conversation], because it has its own ecosystem,’ Vickery says. ‘We do no marketing for it. We just have it in the programme and it looks after itself.’

These movies had billion-dollar ideas and hundred-quid budgets

Vickery laments the way Wiseau’s midnight movie has fostered derisive conditions, in which performative audiences crack wise and compete to be the loudest. ‘The Room created an environment where it’s okay to watch a film and be like Mystery Science Theater,’ the ’90s US TV show in which hosts would riff on a film out loud as it rolled. ‘I like laughing at the cheesiness of something like Troll 2 in an environment where it’s welcome, rather than trying to say the funniest thing in the room. It’s all about celebration and enjoyment.’

In other words, you’ve got to want to engage with ‘bad’ films. The sets might be shoddy, the explosions inexplicable, and the acting shakier than the boom operator’s arms, but that’s all part of their cheeky underdog charm. ‘They had billion-dollar ideas but only a £100 to make them,’ says Vickery, ‘and the results are earnest and heartfelt.’ 

And that’s the appeal of these flops and misfires. In the filmmakers’ failures, we find success. And we find it together, at Bar Trash, at Crap Film Club and Mondo Nights, at the PCC and the Rio, at the Amity Bad Film Club, Bristol Bad Film Club and Edinburgh University Bad Film Society, at the Balboa, at the Hollywood, at the Nitehawk, and at Alamos all over the US. They all share a sense of discovery and community that you just don’t get at your regular multiplex.

Sure, sometimes they’re one star movies – but they’re always five star experiences. 

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